ZNet | Central America & Caribbean

Through The Looking Glass In Guantanamo

by Jane Franklin; Monday, May 03, 2004

ALICE: "If the Bush Administration wants to keep control of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba, why is it arguing before the Supreme Court that Cuba has sovereignty?"


HUMPTY-DUMPTY: "What easy riddles you ask. Because if Cuba has sovereignty, U.S. law does not apply there and so the 600 men and boys called `enemy combatants' by the Bush Administration have no legal rights whatsoever under U.S. law."


 That is actually the argument presented by the lawyer for the Bush Administration before the Supreme Court on April 20. In reality, Cuba has not been sovereign in this particular territory since the Spanish Empire took over the island, already called Cuba, in the late 15th century.


Four centuries later, in 1898, the U.S. Congress declared war against Spain. While the United states calls this the Spanish- American War, Cuba calls it the U.S. Intervention in their Second War of Independence. Claiming that it was going to war to liberate Cuba from Spain, Washington actually went to war to seize Spanish colonies--Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific and Puerto Rico and Cuba in the Atlantic.


Snatching victory from the arms of the Cuban rebels who had almost defeated the Spanish colonialists, U.S. troops occupied the island, including the port at Guantanamo Bay, for four years. In exchange for removal of those troops, the Cuban government, installed by Washington, agreed to incorporate into Cuba's new Constitution the Platt Amendment, which had already become law in the United States (compare the Helms-Burton law a century later, in 1996). The Platt Amendment yielded virtual control of Cuba to Washington, allowing the island to be converted from a colony of Spain into a neo-colony of the United States.


Among the plunder legalized by the Platt Amendment was permission to lease the 45-square-mile area on both sides of Guantanamo Bay. This became the Guantanamo Naval Base, located near the eastern tip of Cuba--a strategic position in the Caribbean and a deep-water port that would be of priceless value to Cuba if Cubans controlled it.


Signed by the 1903 Cuban government that owed its creation to Washington, the lease for Guantanamo stipulated that it would not expire until both countries agree to its termination. The current Cuban government demanded on March 5, 1959, that Washington end its occupation in Guantanamo province. But Washington has continued to "rent" the land, originally paying $2000 a year in gold and now sending $4,085 in the form of a yearly check that Havana has not cashed since 1959.


The lease specified that the area was "for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose." But Washington has always used Guantanamo for whatever purpose it chooses. When the Bush Administration went to war in Afghanistan, the Defense Department turned the naval base into a concentration camp for more than 600 captives from Afghanistan and at least 43 other countries. Classified as "enemy combatants," they have no right to challenge their detention in any court anywhere. No charges have been filed against them. They have no access to lawyers. They have no court dates for hearings or trials. In short, they have no right of habeas corpus.


The challenge to this indefinite limbo is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, which heard arguments from Attorney John Gibbons on behalf of the petitioners held at Guantanamo and from the U.S. Solicitor General, Theodore Olson, on behalf of President George Bush, et al. The Bush Administration maintains that Cuba has "ultimate sovereignty" at the Guantanamo Naval Base and, therefore, U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over what happens there. But as Attorney Gibbons stated in his argument before the Court, this "would create a lawless enclave insulating the executive branch from any judicial scrutiny now or in the future."


Since U.S. armed forces took over the island from Spain, they have never left the naval base at Guantanamo. It's as if a foreign power were to seize an area on both sides of the Hudson River in New York and New Jersey or both sides of the San Francisco Bay.


Cuba has repeatedly protested against the illegal occupation of its territory by a foreign power. On April 15, Cuba proposed a resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Commission that would have condemned the violation of human rights at the concentration camp on Cuban territory. Although Cuba temporarily has withdrawn the resolution, which faced a motion of no action, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque emphasizes that the resolution has only been postponed and will be raised in whatever forum Cuba considers appropriate.


Whatever the U.S. Supreme Court decides, if Cuba were indeed sovereign at Guantanamo Naval Base, the concentration camp would not exist. In the past, Cuba has offered to turn the whole area into a regional health center for the entire Caribbean.


Historian Jane Franklin is the author of Cuba and the U.S. Empire: A Chronological History.

E-mail Jane Franklin: janefranklin@hotmail.com